Skilled trades, strong communities
It takes the skills and knowledge of many different people to support the growth of any area. The rapid development and expansion of the Fargo-Moorhead area has supported hundreds, likely thousands of jobs. From the planners, engineers, and overseers of such a project, to the doers – the laborers and others out in the field, taking on the physical toll of development. Each role is as critical as the next, but demands in the latter category have begun outpacing the number of available employees.
Workforce shortages have been in local headlines for a few years now. With nation-leading lows in unemployment rates, the F-M area has seen more jobs than workers as of late. Employers struggle to find qualified, reliable help, and consumers ultimately end up feeling the shortage.
“Across the board, members of the Home Builders Association of F-M (HBA of F-M) are dealing with a labor shortage,” says Bryce Johnson, HBA of F-M chief executive officer. “This is true of many industries in the Fargo-Moorhead area, but skilled labor is especially scarce.”
Johnson says that nearly every sector of the homebuilding industry feels the impact of a skilled-labor shortage, which can cause project delays when there simply aren’t enough people to complete the necessary work.
Part of the issue lies in the changing demographics of the United States workforce. The baby boomer generation (individuals born between 1946 and 1964) is entering retirement age at an accelerating rate, quickly transitioning away from being the generation comprising the majority of the U.S. workforce. That torch is being handed to younger generations with different workplace expectations who, during their time in secondary and post-secondary education systems, were urged to pursue four-year degrees.
“At a macro level, higher education policy has been very pro-baccalaureate,” says Tony Grindberg, vice president for workforce affairs, North Dakota State College of Science (NDSCS). “A ‘college-for-all’ philosophy has led to the impression that students must have a four year degree to find success in the workplace.”
“That past emphasis has created a shortage of those interested in trades,” says Johnson. “There are not enough people coming out of trade programs to fill these open positions.”
The importance of the situation doesn’t go unnoticed by companies like Cass County Electric Cooperative. In addition to relying on experts in specialized trades for the likes of line workers, CCEC works closely with dozens of contractors and companies on a regular basis. Excavators, builders, electricians, and other utilities must all work collaboratively to some degree, especially in new and developing areas. The necessity of quality work, and skilled people to perform it, is clear across the board.
Thankfully, the problem isn’t going unaddressed. New effort is going into changing perceptions of skilled trades for students. HBA of F-M and its charitable arm, Home Builders Care of Fargo-Moorhead Foundation, hold the two-week Herdina Academy for the Construction Trades for students aged 15-21 in partnership with Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Participants build a garage and spend time at the Minnesota State University Moorhead campus exploring construction trades. The Lego Homebuilding Competition, held at HBA of F-M’s Red River Valley Home & Garden Show, promotes building to kids as young as five, and the Health, Tech & Trades Career Expo brings hundreds of area ninth-grade students and local employers together each year at the Fargodome.
The Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation (GFMEDC) has been involved in a hugely collaborative effort to match the workforce needs of local employers with the processes used by schools at primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels to prepare students for the most desired career fields.
NDSCS is one of many partners in the effort. As one of the area’s major two-year educational institutions, NDSCS touts a 98 percent job placement rate for its graduates. One of the keys to such solid rate is the integration of training and real-life experience.
Through its partner programs, NDSCS is bringing employers and students together in a way that has benefits for both. The programs offer advanced training sessions to current employees of participating businesses and opportunities for employers to work with NDSCS administration, faculty, and staff in aligning academic programs with workforce needs.
NDSCS is currently working on its newest collaborative initiative, the Career Workforce Academy program, which will bring together all the voices in the matter, including private sector companies, K-12 school districts in Cass and Clay counties, other two-year educational institutions, HBA of F-M, FMWF Chamber of Commerce, GFMEDC, and the cities of Fargo and West Fargo. The Career Workforce Academy will provide high school students with early entry options into select fields, increasing career awareness and allowing students the opportunity to graduate high school with considerable progress made toward obtaining a degree.
Through programs like these, students are exposed to real-world career opportunities. Academics and business commingle in the same environment, helping to prepare a strong workforce for the Red River Valley and North Dakota as a whole. With clear benefits for students and employers alike, the effort to build a thriving workforce is a major step in creating and maintaining the strong, attractive communities that this region is becoming known for.